Moral Intuitions and Why Religion Matters

I have been reading lately Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.  The first several chapters are an overview of his work in moral psychology–that is, the psychology of how we make moral judgments.

His beginning and most important point is this: people make moral judgments based on intuition first, followed by active reasoning. Although this reasoning can affect intuitions, it is often a post hoc rationalization for the intuition.

Reason is supposed to be where we think through our intuitions and make rational adjustments that help us reach a higher plane. However, because reason also sits amidst a flawed human body with its own desires and interests and also operates within the cultural ethics in which we grow, reason can be a convenient vehicle by which we become more engrained in immoral behavior because we find justifications, however poor they may be, for behaviors that defy what may be our more natural intuitions.

Haidt, in agreement with his presentation of Glaucon’s argument that people are only virtuous because their reputations are on the line, says this, “The most important principle for designing an ethical society is to make sure that everyone’s reputation is on the line all the time, so that bad behavior will always bring bad consequences,” (pg 81).

So the question becomes this: how do we control our core moral intuitions without “lawyer”-ing ourselves into objectionable behavior when there is no one putting our reputation on the line?

That’s where religion and sociability come into play.

So much of our moral intuitions are the result of the people we spend time with. The change du jour: attitudes towards homosexual behavior tend to change because someone close to us–a friend, family member, or coworker–comes out. It tends to change perspectives when you realize that people can be good and decent in contrast to the language of sin that religion uses. (I should note that no one should be surprised by that experience. We all, being sinners, should recognize that every person is capable of great goodness in the midst of our fallen natures because we ourselves know the good of which we are capable).

Intuitions about morality are in an emerging state, and soon as our intuitions give us any hint of acceptability, our rationality can jump in a find reasons enough to convince us that our behavior is justifiable.

After all, as most lawyers know, you can conjure up an argument for just about anything if you are a skilled enough wordsmith.

Which is why religion is so important to a culturally egocentric and individualistic society like the Western world. Religion forces us to look outside ourselves and develop more than the short-sighted ethics of seeing immediate pain as the end-all of morality. It holds our emotional and logical reasoning to the fire and forces us to confront any differences between doctrine and personal fancy.

Christianity in particular pushes against the pure individualistic ethics of ill-defined space of ‘rights’ and places responsibilities of service on the shoulders of anyone who wants to be great in society. It elevates the “better angels of our nature” by demanding: “Be ye therefore perfect,” which he then demonstrated. Christ sets this example of righteous judgment, mercy, love, seeing the potential in ourselves and others, and of concern for the eternal welfare of a person rather than their immediate desires. As that message take hold within a person, they begin to exude that behavior and others tend to follow.

The more people become acquainted with Deity in their religious study and experiences, the more they want to emulate him. Without that constant presence in society that shows us what we truly can become, without what the Bible calls grace, who we emulate and what our moral intuitions call desirable (and even what is a fundamental human right) can change as much as tastes in music or clothing.

What religion offers, even from a secular standpoint, is twofold: the constant presence of justice for bad behavior (God’s judgment) even if no one is watching, which determines our eternal reputation; and the set of ideals of personal and social development of mind, heart, and spirit that grants tools for the human being to become something more than he or she is.

Adam Smith, the 18th century father of Economics and other social sciences made this point in The Theory of Moral Sentiments: “Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love. He naturally dreads, not only to be hated, but to be hateful; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of hatred. He desires, not only praise, but praiseworthiness; or to be that thing which, though it should be praised by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of praise…The most sincere praise can give little pleasure when it cannot be considered as some sort of proof of praise-worthiness.”

What we consider lovely depends on our intuitions, which in turn are shaped by who we hang-out with. As Moses, Muhammad, Krishna, Brahma, and most importantly (to me) Christ become less of a part of our lives as society, we lose that constancy and vision. What we see as praiseworthy becomes less noble and more fleeting because we have nothing concrete with which to judge the veracity of any intuitive or logical moral claim we can design. Without that presence, we only have what surrounds us–flawed, self-deceiving, and short-sighted human beings.


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